Perched on precarious stepladders, Sarah Gamble interrupted the shelf cleaning to sniff the air. She had earlier thought she had imagined it, but it was no fantasy - the ghastly stench of fermenting fruit was back. Without hesitation she jumped to the floor and wrenched open the airing cupboard door, hauling out neatly stacked yellow towels and white diapers. In the flurry of activity she thought how awful it would be if her second child's apparel began to disappear.
When the last item had joined the others on the quarry tiles Sarah examined the cupboard, eyeing the timber board which hid the hot water tank through which not even the flimsiest towelling bib could escape. She began to chew her lower lip as recollections surged of past experiences, strange smells and mysterious losses, toys and clothes finding their way out of the apartment never to be seen again, and Jimmy's stories of someone breathing on his arms. Sarah shuddered at the memory. Leaning against the steps, screwing the yellow duster into a ball, she recalled that first Christmas when the ordeal started.
Sarah and Jacko were delighted with the apartment, Jacko in particular liking the river view beyond the garage. If we had a dog, he'd say, whenever he parked his great bulk in front of the French windows, I could walk him along the river bank. Sarah was thankful they didn't have a dog, or a cat, or a budgie. All her time was taken looking after Jimmy, running the home, and doing a full time job. Tending pets did not figure in her daily programme.
The apartment was on the ground floor of one of those huge converted Victorian dwellings, once the residence of a well-to-do family if the servants' bells were anything to go by. Jacko thought the misshapen rooms were grotesque until he got used to them but Sarah loved the alcoves and crannies which gave the rooms character. Jimmy took to his new quarters with the eagerness of a three-year old on the threshold of discovery.
'Still love the place, Sarah?' asked Jacko, six months after they moved in. They were reclining on the rust-coloured three-seater taking a breather from installing Christmas lights.
Sarah shifted her nude legs to a more comfortable position on Jacko's lap, absently fiddling with her blonde fringe. 'Moving here was the best thing we ever did,' she said. 'It’s great for Jimmy to have a garden to play in.
Jacko reached across to stroke her cheek. 'It's a pity there are no other kids around. He'll get lonely later on.' Playfully he tweaked her nose. 'Unless ....'
Sarah cuffed his arm. 'Don't get ideas. Jacko. I'm not ready for another kid.' She swung her legs to the floor to avoid her husband's nomadic hand, primly straightening her skirt and adjusting the neckline of her hand-knitted pink top. But she didn't object when he seized her face and began to devour her lips … and she cursed when Jimmy called out that he wanted a pee.
Later that evening when Jimmy was asleep, snoring gently and clutching the leg of a majestic brown bear, Sarah pushed a lock of flaxen hair from his freckled brow and rearranged his quilt. The resemblance to his dad was uncanny even at this young age. Both had deep blue eyes and both knew how to use them to good effect. She prayed that when finally she allowed herself to conceive she would produce a daughter with the ability to resist the roguish good looks of Jacko and his son.
Back in the lounge, Sarah settled beside Jacko on the couch. The television was on low, a game show in progress. Two single lamps were reflected in the window. The coals on the fire burned bright orange. When small pieces of charred wood shot onto the hearth Jacko put out a restraining hand to stop her from jumping up. 'Leave them,' he whispered, pulling her close and nuzzling her neck.
But Sarah's ever-alert ears detected a sound. Thinking Jimmy was in the room, she glanced over Jacko's shoulder. One of the lamps had gone out which accounted for the phut sound she heard. Bulbs don't last five minutes she thought as Jacko probed her ear with his tongue. The next instant, stiffening with alarm, she pushed him away. On the opposite wall, over the stereo, an independent streak of light was slowly circling an unopened bottle of Bristol Cream sherry. The beam had no obvious source and maintained its shaft-like shape even as it toured the bottle's curves. Fearfully, Sarah nudged Jacko's chest and pointed.
Without a word Jacko rose and left the room. Sarah heard him unlock the back door and go outside. The shaft continued its orbit … up, across, and down. Jacko passed the window and disappeared into the dark. For a moment Sarah worried in case he didn't come back but he soon reappeared, giving a comical grin as he pulled a silly face and pressed nose and finger-tips against the cold glass … eleven ghostly blobs that somehow had the power to dismiss the light shaft and leave the bottle intact.
On his return, Jacko explained his assumption that a child was responsible for the illusion (angling a mirror at the light was a trick he played on sister Fran), but he’d found nothing in the garden to confirm his theory. No glass, no kid. He had forgotten that the garden was solidly fenced, the gate locked and bolted, and the area devoid of offspring.
On Christmas morning Jacko opened the sherry while Jimmy tore through his presents like a whirlwind, casting aside a new blue coat and a pillowcase of assorted toys in order to play with a sizeable red train, a gift from the paternal grandparents. By mid-morning the apartment looked like a tip, causing Sarah some embarrassment when Mr and Mrs Biggins, the elderly couple next door, came to contribute a colouring book and crayons to Jimmy's acquisitions. They stayed for mince-pies and sherry and listened to the tale of the spooky visitation.
Mr Biggins squatted on the floor to play with Jimmy's toys, a move which for the first time drew Jimmy's concentration away from the train. Mr Biggins leafed through the colouring book but Jimmy showed more interest in a plastic cone that fired balls into the air. One ball, to be exact. Knowing his son's prowess for losing small things Jacko had hidden the other five. Mr Biggins showed Jimmy how to fire the ball then catch it in the cone but Jimmy's co-ordination was as yet unformed and the second time he tried the ball rolled under a dining-chair. Seeing his face crumple Sarah promptly moved the chair to retrieve it. There was no sign of the white celluloid ball.
Leaving his sherry glass on the table Jacko crossed the room and stood at Sarah's side, gawking in disbelief at the place where the ball had disappeared. Mr Biggins wondered if it had bounced behind the radiator - an ineffective one situated three feet from the ground - but their probing was abortive. There was no opening big enough for a ball to get through.
Jimmy was lamenting his loss. While Sarah held him in her arms, as much for her benefit as his, Mr Biggins and Jacko searched the area. They examined the skirting board but nothing could have rolled through a quarter-inch knot-hole in the wood. There was no hiding place on either the chair or the adjacent stereogram. The carpet was firmly fixed to the floor and, unless there was a concealed trap door, the wall was intact. They had literally watched the ball go.
'Hope you don't mind my asking,' said Mrs Biggins, ‘have you lost things before?'
At first Sarah thought the question was an accusation and was about to word a denial when Mrs Biggins spoke again.
'The previous tenants lost things. In fact, he left her because of it. Said he couldn't take her carelessness any longer. They had a dreadful row. We heard it quite distinctly with the windows open.'
'Well I won't be leaving,' gasped Jacko, breathless from lugging the stereo to its rightful place.
Mr Biggins reinstated the chair in front of the radiator. 'Glad to hear it, lad. Can't abide marriage break-ups. Young 'uns these days don't have enough commitment.'
Sarah was quiet, reflecting on other objects that had gone astray: toys from Jimmy's room, his pants and cotton tops from the airing cupboard. All Jimmy's things! Incredulously, she shook her head as it occurred to her that the airing cupboard was in a corresponding position to the radiator on the other side of the wall. She turned to Mrs Biggins. 'Jimmy's stuff goes missing. Clothes and toys. Did the other couple have children?'
'No, but there was a family here before them who had a daughter, a lovely, curly-headed child. She was five when she died. Drowned in the river.'
'How tragic,' Sarah said, making a mental note never to allow Jimmy near the river alone. Maybe the child's ghost was purloining Jimmy's stuff. She quickly suppressed the idea as ridiculous. Ghosts didn't steal. Neither did they wear clothes.
It was a week into the New Year when Sarah noticed strange smells around the airing cupboard, inside and out, like over-ripe fruit. Unable to find the cause, she began supervising Jimmy's fruit intake, sitting with him until he finished and personally trashing the core. But the smells persisted, notably when Jimmy was around. Only traces remained when he was at nursery school.
She discussed the matter with Reg Phipps, the guy who lived on the upper floor, a bruiser of man, scaffolder by trade. She mentioned it because of his habit of hovering in the communal yard, nibbling the last remnants of apple before tossing the core in the bin, speculating on the possibility of a link. Considerately, Reg offered to investigate and the following Saturday he arrived at the back door armed with a tool box. Jacko was taken aback, but agreed with Reg that all avenues should be explored to trace the cause of the smell. Between them they completely dismantled the cupboard. They found nothing, neither an apple pip nor a piece of orange peel, yet the fruity fragrance pervaded the kitchen as fresh as if newly released from its skin.
'That's that,' said Jacko as he tightened the final screw. 'There's nothing more we can do. The smell remains a mystery.'
In September Sarah knuckled down to night school studies and on alternate evenings Jacko played darts with Reg. Sometimes Sarah took advantage of Jacko's absence by studying history in a hot bath, holding her revision book free of lavender-smelling suds. It was the ultimate in luxury for the bath was sited in the warm kitchen with the telephone near to hand.
One Tuesday, during a leisurely soak, the telephone rang. It was Marie, a friend from work. Outside a storm raged. Listening to Marie's version of an incident at work, Sarah sipped her coffee, then ran the hot tap, slithering down until her shoulders were covered with foam. The blinds shivered at the window, reminding her to get a draught excluder fixed before winter set in. While Marie rattled on about the boss, Sarah heard a noise above the wind. Someone entering the yard. She strained to listen, hearing the dustbin lid scrape open, then clang shut, and the gate forcibly drawn to. She was thunderstruck since Reg was the only other person to use the yard and he was out playing darts.
Swiftly cutting the call, she abandoned the phone and climbed out of the bath, donned a cotton robe and hurried to the bedroom window which had to be passed to reach either the road or the front of the house. Seeing no-one, she put it down to the wind playing tricks with her imagination. Yet as soon as she returned to the kitchen and heard the same noises she knew she was wrong.
Metal on metal, wood against wood.
Once more she raced to the window; again there no-one was there.
Clutching her robe to her, she checked Jimmy's room. He was sleeping peacefully, one hand tucked under his chin, his teddy tucked under his neck. As Sarah eased the toy away, she glanced through the window. The kitchen light shone through the transom over the door, illuminating the gate. As expected it was closed, bolted at the top as well as half way down. Sarah was suddenly scared. Only a giant could have unbolted and rebolted the gate from outside. Even Reg wasn't that big. Her eye alighted on the refuse bin, its black rubber lid secure … and wondered how long it had been since the metal bin with the noisy lid had been replaced by plastic.
A year after the first encounter with the unknown, Reg came up with the idea of calling the spirit's bluff, believing the whole thing was nothing more than a young spirit wanting to play. Though why a spirit should want to play with Jimmy's things was beyond Sarah’s comprehension. The stink of seasoned fruit had continued to come and go, dependent upon whether Jimmy was in or out. Parts of his train set had strayed, all but three of his vests had walked, and a lace vanished before her eyes from one of his trainers. Seeing Sarah upset over that prompted Reg to suggest that she ask for its return and see what transpired. He’d been discussing the matter with someone at work, someone who knew about psychic matters. Against her better judgement she agreed to give it a go.
She chose an evening when Jacko and Reg were out, taking two glasses of whisky to give her courage, bravely deciding to ask for the return of the original ball and work through the other items if nothing developed. Tremulously, she ventured into the kitchen and stood centre-stage, feet apart, one hand resting on a chair, eyes cast upwards. 'Please can we have our ball back?' she said, feeling utterly foolish as the words left her mouth.
Nothing happened, not a rumble nor a groan let alone a promise to stop thieving, but Sarah was sure the smell grew stronger as she spoke. Moving nearer to the airing cupboard she tried again, drawing herself to full height and adopting a masterful approach, threatening the spirit with extinction if the ball wasn't immediately given back.
Just an incipient citrus smell.
Two days later, outside the greengrocers, Sarah bumped into Mrs Biggins. 'How's Jimmy,' asked the old lady, stuffing a cabbage in her bag.
'He's fine, thanks.'
'I thought I heard him in the garden the other day, but then I realised he'd be at nursery. It did sound like him, though. I was looking after next door's cat while they were away, feeding it and letting it out to do its functions. When I came to call him in the rascal wouldn't come. I called 'til I was nearly hoarse. Someone said, He's here, Mrs Biggins. Could've sworn it was your Jimmy.' Mrs Biggins transferred her shopping bag to the other hand. 'It was definitely a child's voice and I naturally assumed ... except, come to think, it sounded more like a girl.'
That afternoon, dressed in jeans and a couple of warm sweaters, Sarah toured the garden planning what vegetables to grow. Daffodil shoots were already an inch out of the ground. A watery sun shone, giving the place a premature springtime feel. She stooped to uproot a tuft of grass from the border, tugging it free of hard soil, and there, nesting in the weeds, was a white celluloid ball, grubby but unharmed, still bearing the imprinted trade mark of Jimmy's toy.
Returning the last towel to the cupboard, Sarah chastised herself for being over-sensitive. If the child's spirit was pilfering baby things, it must mean the poor thing was making Polly welcome. Jimmy was never hurt so why should Polly be at risk? Lifting her eyes to the ceiling, she cried, 'Okay, little one, choose which bib you want and I'll iron it for you.'
Sarah could have sworn she heard a faint chuckle when Polly's bib, the one with the parading yellow ducks, fell from the top of the pile and floated to the table, where it lay in a crumpled heap alongside the iron.
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